Fast cars, fat singers, fine food and fizzy Lambrusco, in Modena you get to experience it all.
‘Push! Push! Push!’, cries the man in the passenger seat and so I obligingly push down hard on the accelerator. The bright red Ferrari California makes a noise like Pavarotti getting his fingers caught in a door and £160,000 worth of supercar hurls itself forward as I frantically work the paddle gear change to keep up. The speedo needle rushes toward the motorway limit and then past it, but it isn’t even a fifth of the way around its elegant dial yet.
‘Piano, piano,’ ‘gently, gently’, advises my Italian co-pilot as the rear of a giant lorry suddenly fills the windscreen, so I let off the pedal, dab the brakes and the car majestically slows down as if a giant hand has grasped it.
I turn off at the next exit to growl my way back through Marranelo’s rush hour traffic, occasionally performing short, eyeball-squashing, accelerations when I see a bit of clear road.
The rain is beginning to sprinkle down but I don’t want to put the roof up. Nothing can dampen my spirits, it’s been twenty minutes of my life I shall certainly never forget. This, as Clarkson might say, is a quality motor and I had…. the keys.
The sounds of music
Italians here appreciate and adore quality in every area. The aforementioned Pavarotti was born and lived in Modena and is a regional hero. ‘The Master’, as he is referred to in reverential tones, had perfect pipes and the locals are as vocal in their appreciation of his music as they are of the sound that comes out of a supercar’s exhaust.
Pavarotti’s house is full of carefully-chosen memorabilia, as well as looking pretty much as as it was when he lived in it; his furniture, his books, his wine cellar and his kitchen are all still awaiting his return. I peered down into his deep-fat fryer and wondered just how many late night super-snacks it must have seen.
Opera emerges from hidden speakers in his house and in the wonderful Museo Ferrari there’s a sound booth where you can break away from dribbling over the cars and choose to be surrounded by the music of whichever F1 Ferrari you want – V8, V12, Turbo. It’s as beautiful as any aria and you emerge a little deafened but humming happily.
Start your engines
You can’t escape Pavarotti or Ferrari in Emilio Romagna, a region often known as Motor Valley. As well as the Ferrari museums (there are two) there is the Pagani factory where in conditions of great secrecy, you have to hand over your mobile phones and cameras on entry, they make the Huayra Roadster, a carbon-fibre car that makes petrolheads go all gooey inside and lovers of automotive beauty sigh lovingly. The visit lasts around an hour and is time well spent.
There are in fact affordable tours available to all the big motor names here. The Maserati factory is particularly good as you get to walk the assembly line of the Maserati Gran Cabrio and GranTurismo and also see the testing and finishing areas. Everything is put together by hand by just three people at each station and there’s not a drop of oil anywhere. You could probably eat your tortellini off the floor.
Ah yes the tortellini, usually served in brodo, a rich broth. is a very popular dish in the region and especially at Christmas. It was one of Enzo Ferrari’s favourite dishes apparently, and I spent a happy morning learning how to make these little jewels at the Balsamic Vinegar house Acetaia Malagoli before touring their attic where they create their world-renowned balsamic vinegar.
Make no mistake; most of what is often labelled balsamic vinegar is rubbish. The finest balsamic only comes from Modena, must be fermented in attics, tastes divine and is eye-wateringly expensive. My guide Sofia, the daughter of the house and who abandoned university to become the family’s marketing guru, spilled a few dark, viscous, drops onto the floor as we tasted, ‘that’s about ten Euros worth,’ she said sadly.
The best balsamic never has an age marked on the bottle because, she explains, rather like sherry, it is made by the Solera process; blended down from barrels that were originally filled over many different years in the past.
The Malagolis have over 750 barrels certified for the aging of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP up in their large ‘attic’.
Each final blend is assessed by experts before it can receive the official DOP label and be allowed to use the special Modena bulb-shaped 100ml bottle.
Its complex flavours come into their own when drizzled sparingly over that other great local product Parmesan, on vanilla ice cream and many locals like to take a small teaspoonful after a meal as a digestif.
It is of course used by the finest chefs and right now there is (officially) no finer chef than Massimo Bottura whose unassuming, in fact so modest I walked right past it at first, restaurant Osteria Francescana is down a small side street in Modena.
You may have to wait a few months or more for a reservation, but the cooking is superb and the staff wonderfully relaxed and friendly.
Despite the prices they’re not in the least snooty and ask how you’re enjoying your dishes in a genuine fashion. The answer, by the way, is usually ‘very, very much!’
The view from the terrace out over their infinity pool and their vines now slowly changing from green to orange in the Autumn sunshine, is pure heaven.
The food and the wine are glorious too and it was really no surprise to be told that Massimo Bottura and his whole team from Osteria Francescana had come out to have lunch themselves the previous Sunday. ‘Our chef was a bit nervous,’ the owner told me over our expresso, while a party of Japanese food journalists furiously photographed everything in sight, ‘but it all went perfectly!’
Make it Modena
Modena, which is the best base to tour the area from, is a compact and manageable town that despite its links to insanely fast cars has a slow-paced feel to it.
In the centre is the white-robed cathedral looking out over the main square and all around are cobbled streets which seem to be vying with each other to be labelled the most classic and cute.
Restaurants are everywhere and one I particularly loved was Il Fantino. In the evening it was rammed with everyday Italians laughing and shouting under walls packed with motoring and sport memorabilia.
Here I tried great bowls of homemade ricotta tortelloni, (tortellini’s big brother) strozzapreti (priest stranglers) with local mushrooms and speck, a tagliatelle with ragu and, an amazing local delight, Tigelle
Tigelle look rather like flat muffins and you split them open, still warm from the pan, to fill them with Pesto Modenese, a pork spread of lard, garlic and rosemary. Another local treat to try here is Gnocco Fritto, fried pillows of deliciousness, that partner perfectly with salumi and cheeses They are just as fabulous as they sound and there is only one thing to drink with them. Red Lambrusco.
This fizzy red wine served lightly chilled is seldom seen in the UK, usually only the white version. Double fermented, first to create the alcohol and then again for the bubbles, it’s a young, light wine that works superbly with the lovely fats of Modena’s meats, cleansing the palate and refreshing the spirit.
A well respected local producer is Gavioli , over 220 years old and who has a wonderful museum of ancient wine making kit on show as well the owner’s collection of classic Ferraris.
it’s part of Discover Ferrari & Pavarotti land a local initiative that lets visitors get the best of the region’s food, wine and cars with organised programmes that do all the work for you.
Modena’s covered market Albinelli, is well worth checking out while you’re there, even though it’s immensely frustrating to see such fabulous fresh produce on offer and have nowhere to cook it. The seafood, the mushrooms, the cheese and the cured meats are all so lovely.
I got a fix by heading to one of the oldest sandwich bars, more a cupboard really, where there are specials each day. I grabbed a roll filled with warm sausage meat, another local treat, and one with fine Prosciutto di Parma and local figs, and packed them into my bag to take with me to the airport.
For people who love cars and people who love food, for people who love opera and beautiful scenery and for people who just love life, the Emilio Romagna region has it all and it’s just 90 minutes from the UK.
We stayed at: Hotel Canalgrande****, Corso Canalgrande 6 www.canalgrandehotel.it
A marvelous, classic, hotel full of atmosphere and with a lovely walled garden. Restaurant Roll of Honour:Stallo del Pomodoro Largo Hannover, 63, 41100 Modena -Unpretentious and fun
Erba del Re Via Castelmaraldo, 45, 41121 Modena – Stylish, classy cooking
OPERA02 – Great for lunch with fabulous views
Il fantino Via Donzi, 7, 41121 Modena – Home of the best Modena Pesto
Panini Motor Museum Strada Corletto Sud 320, Modena www.paninimotormuseum.it. Classic cars and a parmesan dairy
Pagani factory and museum tour www.pagani.com/factory-tours . The most super of supercars.
Maserati factory and showroom tour in Modena www.maserati.com/maserati . Remarkable factory of excellence
Museo Ferrari musei.ferrari.com All the F1 cars and so many beautiful Ferraris past and present.
Pavarotti Museum www.casamuseolucianopavarotti